The judicial system of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico includes four basic units: the Supreme Court, presided over by a chief justice; the Court of Appeals; the Court of First Instance; and the Office of Courts Administration. Of these, only the Commonwealth Constitution created the Supreme Court, which has the highest rank. The other lower courts, based on Article 5, Section 1 of the Constitution, were created by the Legislative Assembly with the approval of the governor. The Legislature, therefore, has the authority to create and abolish courts, with the exception of the Supreme Court, and to determine their authority and jurisdiction. The Supreme Court is the court of final instance in Puerto Rico and the Legislative Assembly cannot alter its institutional role.

The fourth unit of the judicial system is the Office of Courts Administration (OAT for its Spanish acronym), which is directed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Constitution gives the chief justice the sole responsibility for administering the judicial branch. In the same way that the president of each legislative house directs that body and the governor directs the executive branch, the chief justice of the Supreme Court has the non-transferable responsibility for the administration of the courts. The chief justice appoints an administrative director “who will serve at the pleasure of said magistrate.”

The judges of the three judicial levels, including the Supreme Court and its chief justice, are appointed by the governor with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. While the terms of the Supreme Court justices are for life, until the retirement age (as long as they follow good conduct in the performance of their duties), the terms of other judges are fixed by law. The obligatory retirement age for all judges in the judicial system is 70 years.

Judicial Regions

The Courts of First Instance are currently divided into two levels: Superior and Municipal; and thirteen judicial regions: San Juan, Carolina, Bayamón, Fajardo, Humacao, Caguas, Guayama, Aibonito, Ponce, Utuado, Arecibo, Aguadilla and Mayagüez. Each of these manages the judicial activity in its region, both in civil and criminal cases, provides an administrative foundation and maintains support units for the judicial role.

Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals, more recently created, constitutes an intermediate hierarchical level between the Supreme Court and the Courts of First Instance. It is important to note that although each court incorporates administrative functions (the Court of Appeals and each region has an administrative judge and an assistant administrative judge), the Office of Courts Administration — under the direct and non-transferable supervision of the chief justice —, is the primary unit responsible for coordination and proper operation of the judicial system. Under the rules of modern democracies and the liberal ethics that legitimize it, the judicial branch is the main vehicle for citizens to rely on in order to validate their human rights. The principle of separation of governmental powers takes on a particularly important dimension when there is a judiciary that is independent of the power structure and is capable of acting autonomously in the face of abuse of power or improper acts by the powerful.

Autor: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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